Writings by Dr. Karyn Shanks on Self-Healing Functional Medicine and Nutrition

Embodied Wholeness Through Movement

I started running as a teenager, inspired by the notion that I could replace bad habits with something more positive and possibly good for me. It was awful at first and I hated it, but I’m stubborn. So I started with one block, then two, gradually, painstakingly increasing my distance. It was not fun but I was intrigued as I felt just a flash or ripple of empowerment when I accomplished the grueling task I put before myself each day. Before I knew it I was running miles not blocks. My energy was up. My confidence soared. I felt really, really good about myself. Some of this was a sense of accomplishment for succeeding at something really hard, that I’d never imagined myself doing. But I also felt different in my body in a new and strange way. It was like I was in my body for the first time. I could feel myself through my effort and work and soreness. And strangely I felt more whole and more present.

So running was a revelation for me. It literally saved me at a very difficult time in my life. It reduced my anxiety, cleared my mind and helped me focus and concentrate on my schoolwork. It became my first true love as it connected me to nature and my environment while I pounded the streets and trails of my favorite running paths. It kept me entertained, as well as grounded and stable, less stressed and more courageous.

Since all I did was run for many years I accumulated injuries. I learned the virtues of variety. I’ve since tried many types of movement. I found that I hated the repetition of exercise classes that went through the same routine every time. And the machines and gym regimens were tedious and boring. I needed nature, purpose and variety!

These days I do lots of things to stay active. On the intense end of the spectrum I do Crossfit. It’s the perfect combination of the many dimensions of exercise that I have learned are important: variety, strength, power, mobility, speed, agility and balance. The movements are purposeful—they are about performance and not just lifting a weight up and down. We learn the structure of a new movement, progress it and gradually develop the skill and strength.

I alternate my Crossfit days with yoga and hikes in the woods. These are more inward-leaning, restorative and body-opening. All take me on an inward journey, just in different ways. All are meditative disciplines that call me to full attention to myself, that inspire me to grow and progress, that build my sense of courage and belief in what is possible. I love being strong in my body, of conquering a skill that takes me beyond what I thought was possible. The pull-ups, toes-to-bar and Ardha Chandrasana (half-moon pose) all take me there, and I carry this into my everyday life. The deep embodiment makes me feel more alive, light, clear, optimistic and open to the possibilities of the day, expecting the best. I am more vital and vibrant because of my daily discipline of movement practices and for me this is their greatest value. The health benefits are wonderful, especially as I age, but it’s the impact on my mind, emotions and spirit that sustains my effort and energy.

Through the triumphs as well as the struggles of injuries and being sidelined I have learned, as my yoga teacher says, to “hug in first, then extend out.” Hug in first: be self-aware, listen to the voice within, get the body set and ready for action. Then extend out: courageously jump in, knowing I am ready, not necessarily certain about the outcome, but moving forward in strength and commitment. Best advice of the century.

We are meant to move for many reasons. But what makes it sustainable for so many of us is how it keeps us grounded in our bodies, more present and alive, and more balanced in our energy and emotions. This sense of embodiment builds equanimity, courage and confidence. Movement keeps us engaged in our lives. It’s action with a purpose, moving us forward, to something. It’s play, interaction and connection. It puts our bold ideas into motion.


Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.